At issue is the dilemma of environment conservation against agricultural production, and this battle has many players involved, from local to international. Proponents of the new legislation say it’s necessary for economic development while the bill’s foes note the battle is not just about economy, but giving farmers a green light for even more deforestation.
The Amazon region of Brazil covers almost 60 percent of the country’s total land area. Home to a rapidly growing agricultural community, the rainforest is receiving tremendous pressure from various groups, including cattle ranchers and soy bean farmers.
World-wide demand for soybeans and soybean products continues increasing, and with US farmers opting for ethanol-based production of corn instead of soybeans in recent years, Brazilian farmers have helped push their country to the top of the list in soybean exports, according to Worldwatch Institute
The South American country’s increased soybean production has come with a price. Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest has seen an alarming spike in just the last year, with much of the destruction occurring in the state of Mato Grosso, center of Brazil’s soybean production.
According to the BBC
, satellite images from Brazil’s space research institute show deforestation in the area has increased from 103 sq km during March and April last year to 593 sq km during the same period in 2011.
Brazil’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said last week those are “alarming” numbers and has announced the formation of a crisis cabinet to deal with the news. “Our objective is to reduce deforestation by July,” she added, according to BBC.
Some estimates show as much as 20 percent of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, has been cleared, primarily from logging and farming. The current law, 80 percent of a farm in the Amazon must remain forested. In areas outside the Amazon, the requirement number falls to 20 percent. Because of the Amazon’s vast size and remoteness, the law has not been strictly enforced.
The new bill would exempt farmers from having to replant deforested land and would open up to certain cultivation practices previously excluded land such as slopes and hilltops. The legislation would also allow encroachment along the banks of streams and rivers, reducing the amount of intact land in such areas from 100 feet to 50 feet.
Another part of the package would allow farmers to count forests located along lakes and rivers as a part of their conservation area, reducing the total amount they are required to protect or reforest.
However, the most controversial part of the bill, and the part facing presidential veto, would allow farmers with up to 990 acres (400 hectares) an amnesty for any deforestation they did before July 2008.
“You have 300-400 lawmakers here in Brasilia sending the message that profiting from deforestation will be amnestied, that crime pays,” Marcio Astrini of Greenpeace told Reuters
The new changes to the Forest Code, proposed by Aldo Rebelo of Brazil’s Communist Party, was supported by farmers’ groups who say the country must boost food production because of high commodity prices.
“None of the world's large farm producers that compete with Brazil - the United States, Europe, China, Argentina and Australia - obliges its producers to preserve any forest,” the National Agriculture Confederation (CNA) said, BBC
The US government’s Foreign Agricultural Service
(FAS), part of the USDA, has stated
it is apparent that there is enormous potential for continued growth in soybean cultivation in the Amazon region and that there are few natural limits to future expansion which cannot be overcome by astute planning, research, and adequate investment capital. It is conservatively estimated that cultivated soybean acreage in the region could increase by more than 40 million hectares through the conversion of existing pasture and native savannah lands, and that even greater acreage would be available in the future should current Amazonian deforestation trends continue.
The FAS notes enormous pasture resources and low land prices in the Amazon region as two factors pushing soybean production in the states of Mato Grosso and Para. New roads into remote areas, funded in part by farming consortiums and a government levy on soybeans, cotton, cattle and wood are also expanding soy bean production. Farmers expect the roads, once completed, to pay for themselves within a year and reduce shipping costs to port by about 20 percent. They also expect property values to appreciate rapidly.
CNA Vice President Assuero Veronez is of the belief the new legislation will not lead to increased deforestation, telling AP: “We do not have to cut down one single tree. We can increase agricultural output in already deforested areas,” BBC notes.
The bill now goes to the Senate and, if passed, to Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who has said she will veto any bill containing amnesty.